Headwinds buffet bike shops
Bike Force Woodvale owner Erin Karel, with children Jarrod and Selena. Picture: Ben Crabtree/The West Australian

The Tour's on. Lycra-wearing types are clogging up cafes on Saturday mornings. More and more people are taking up cycling.

Bicycle shops should be doing a roaring trade, right?

Well, not exactly.

Online competition and the dark cloud of consumer sentiment are hurting cycling shops almost as much as the rest of the retail sector.

Imports of bikes - precious few are made in Australia - are well down from their 2007 peak. Cyclists are hanging on to their treadlies for longer and surfing the web for parts and accessories.

Last month three shops under the high-end BSC chain in Melbourne suddenly closed down. Their owner blamed a perfect storm of internet retailers, high rents and slower demand.

Sales are also down in WA, but the predominantly independent stores are generally hanging on.

"The bigger shops are doing OK, I think, and the smaller shops are struggling," Glen Parker Cycles co-owner Hilton McMurdo says.

"I think there are more people riding bikes now than there was five years ago," he said. "Turnover is also better, but margins have come down a hell of a lot because of internet sales".

Bike Force Woodvale owner Erin Karel says bike sales are down but not as much accessories. "Online definitely hurts," she said.

"It's also the state of retail in general. People are just hanging on to their money because you just don't know what's around the corner."

While department stores such as Kmart, Target and Big W account for about half of the national volume of bike sales, the cycling shops account for about 75 per cent of the value by selling and servicing higher-end bikes.

The chain store model hasn't found success in the world of cycling. While there are 13 Bike Force stores in Perth, all are independently owned franchises.

"Good bike stores are so reliant on good service, good knowledge, good interaction, good relationships," Cycling Promotion Fund general manager Peter Bourke said. "That's why people go to a bike store: for information, for advice and for knowledge.

"It obviously becomes harder to have that quality control of the information of the presentation, the larger the chain. It comes down to quality of staff and that obviously gets harder to gain and maintain the bigger the franchise, the bigger the chain."

It is those factors that are also keeping the stores going against the internet onslaught.

"It all comes down to service, the relationship you have with your customer," Ms Karel says. "People just aren't aware that you get a dodgy bike on the internet and that's what you pay for. It might be cheap but it's cheap for a reason."

Mr McMurdo says people buying bikes online may get a surprise when they have to pay duties and GST (when value exceeds $1000). There may also be no warranties when repairs are needed.

"If there's any problem with the stuff that they get, then they expect us to fix it for them."

While the Tour de France gives sales of high-end road bikes a bit of a nudge, it is actually the summer months when sales peak. And it is the more humble leisure and commuter bikes that keep the cash registers ticking over.

But having the picturesque three-week road race on prime time TV succeeds in raising awareness of cycling.

"A lot more people are watching the Tour than they used to," Mr McMurdo says. "It's not our biggest month by far but it definitely generates more interest and we sell a few more bikes and bits and pieces."

Ms Karel says: "Definitely, there's a bit more interest. People are dreaming of riding round the Alps."

Many of the stores are labours of love, owned and staffed by former or rising cycling stars and those who are just plain passionate. The businesses may not be hugely profitable but the established ones have been around for decades.

"We survive," said Ms Karel, who funds the competition cycling ambitions of her teenage children. "It's long hours but it's enjoyable."

One new area of business the industry hopes to exploit is power-assisted bicycles. In May the Federal Government gave the green light to importing European-standard models by increasing the allowable power output from 200 to 250 watts.

In the Netherlands electric bicycles - which assist pedalling up to 25km/h and appeal to less athletic users - account for one in five bikes and half the value sold because they retail for about $2000.

There's just one hitch. The WA Governments now allows them on shared paths, but only up to 200 watts. "You can import them (but) you can't use them," Mr Bourke said. The regulations are under review.

The West Australian

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